A crackerjack if little-known comedy-thriller, Contraband (1940) was the second film of the famed Archers partnership of Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger partnership. Tweaking the genre formula laid down by recently-emigrated Alfred Hitchcock, Contraband displays the developing dynamic of the Archers team, and provides the first in their near-miraculous run of great films that would span the 1940s.
Powell was concluding his directorial apprenticeship when he encountered expatriate Hungarian writer Pressburger, and together they had made the hit The Spy in Black (1939) with starring duo Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. All four re-teamed for Contraband, where Veidt plays Anderson, captain of a Danish freighter stopped by British blockade early in World War 2. Anderson’s hopes of getting his cargo of much-needed medical supplies home are threatened by the flight of two of his passengers, including the shady, perturbing Mrs. Sorensen (Hobson).
He tracks them to London, only to fall foul of the German spies waiting for the duo, who are really British agents. Plot is mere foreplay to the baptism by fire of Veidt and Hobson’s romance; while Anderson initially bristles at Sorenson’s willful façade, he soon realizes she’s the girl for him, a daredevil femme fatale with a disdain for domesticity to equal his. A good thing, too, for Anderson’s latent dynamism will be needed to save her from the dastardly Huns.
Powell and Pressburger are determined to have fun, shifting from magic realism to life-and-death struggle as if by accident. As embodied by the central romantic couple, embattled romanticism and Old World chivalry chafe against a harsher modern world, but also find a place in it. Blackout-ridden London during the uneasy calm of the “phony war” proves less a besieged metropolis than an enchanted kingdom where spies and émigrés battle amidst snatches of sea shanty and kitschy ethnographic dance numbers.
The swirl of detail is both eccentric yet functional, the elegiac and the practical in concert, and sometimes with cheeky resonance. When Anderson uses a plaster bust of Neville Chamberlain to clobber a bad guy, he regards the bust and blurts with surprise: “They always said he was tough.”
In a brilliantly orchestrated sequence in a Danish restaurant, Anderson and Sorenson’s romance kindles like the flambeau that crackles behind them. The restaurant’s waiters take up the tune emitted by Anderson’s watch, revealing themselves as an army of patriots in waiting, ready to take on the Nazis.
Anderson’s seemingly dreamy stargazing when he and Sorenson are bundled away by German agents proves hard-headed sailor’s craft that allows him to later zero in on the enemy hideout. The sequence in which Anderson and Sorenson are tied up together provides both keenly detailed suspense and a thrillingly metaphorical sexual encounter.
There’s a hint here, and earlier when Anderson signals his erotic fascination with Sorenson by fondling one of her discarded stockings, of the kink Powell’s career would be vengefully ransacked for by critics after Peeping Tom.
But never mind the auteurist geology: excellently shot by Freddie Young, and acted with surprising agility by Veidt and zest by Hobson, this film is class entertainment all the way.
Roderick Heath is a writer and film critic who lives in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, Australia.